A jarring phenomenon of the Trump presidency is that words are cheaper than they’ve ever been in my half-century-long life. Yet behind this cheapness, silences appear, difficult and important to feel. There is the silence of an estimated 4,645 deaths in Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricane Maria. There’s the silence, too, of a federal government that by omission allowed these deaths to pile up through inaction and inadequate action – and then reported numbers that made the crisis seem less severe, as if we were crazy to look at the images in the media and think that the island is devastated. Loud, cheap talk – and morally serious, morally dangerous silences. What is to be done? Should we speak louder, together? Should we speak more clearly, together? Should we shut up and act, together?

Perhaps the second, but I also want to make a case for being silent. To do that, please think with me about the ancient meaning of philosophy and the action of Emma González this past March at the March for our Lives.

“Silence is not negative”

Silence is nothing negative; it is not the mere absence of speech. It is a positive, a complete world in itself.” When the Swiss philosopher Max Picard wrote these words in the first half of the 20th century, he could not have foreseen their perfect realization in the silence of Emma González. The question is, what is the world of silence that is “complete” in itself?

We might associate the power of silence with traditions of thought other than the Greek philosophical tradition. Practitioners of Zen Buddhism have made much of silence. And there is a strong use of silence in ahimsa, at least as developed by Mahatma Gandhi in his politics of non-violence.

Less popularly known is that silence is central to Greek philosophy, where the word “philosophy” originated. “Philosophy” means belonging with, and care and concern for (philia) wisdom (sophia). The wisdom in question here was originally meant in the sense of knowing how to live well. When the word “philosophy” was first used, it was a neologism meant to describe the behavior of groups of people who spent all their time thinking about wisdom instead of consulting oracles.

Truths of life

Given that philosophers had a reputation for being chatty, what did silence have to do with thinking? We might note that legends of Socrates show him spending great amounts of time thinking in silence. One story relays him spending an entire sunset and night standing stock-still thinking while on a military campaign. It puzzled and awed his fellow soldiers. What was that about?

The common view of the core power of philosophy is that it is rational speech, or, logic. But logos, from which “logic” is derived (as is every “-logy”) was a polysemic word that meant, among other things, reason, speech, thought, and an account. A logos , for instance, could be an account of something, an explanation and, in some cases, a justification. As a power, it could be thought or reason itself. We might wonder how these are related.

One plausible interpretation is that thought displays as reasoning, in which an account of something can be given, and this account can only be accountable publically when one articulates it. Where would silence belong here?

The answer is subtle. The self, following Charles Larmore, is a practice, something we do, not are. When I focus, I take accountability for my commitments, beliefs, feelings, wants, intentions: “I believe this, not that.” “I am feeling that, not this.” “That is what I think is right.” “This is where I am confused.”

Kierkegaard called such honesty the moment of “ appropriation,” the moment when we make a truth “our own.” It involves commitment. He did not mean that we thereby made the truth merely subjective, as some have misread him. He meant that we thereby become accountable to the truth and its implications. We live with it. That is what “subjectivity” actually means. The practice of the self is found in the act of owning up to things, being accountable to one’s commitments and one’s reality.

But subjectivity needs receptivity, needs time to take things in. Silence is an embodied form of that receptivity – of that moment of being or becoming accountable to what you think. It is a moment of what Jacques Rancière called the “ I can think.” Staying silent in the face of a thought, considering something that matters, is thus a power of accountability in (and to) the self. In this way, silence is logos — or rather is a crucial part of it. There would be no arrival at truth, that is, there would be no logos — no account — without a certain action of silence.

So let’s say this: In silence, we are accountable by squaring up with things, as they unsettle us in the world and as they arise and take shape within us, living with what we think, feel, and want. This is to act as a self, rather than a passive object thrown around by the world. Silence is the power of living with truths of life, absorbing them and owning up to their implications. This is what many found in the silence of Emma González.

The Wild West resurfaces

In light of the power of silence as it pertains to integrity, we can see why it matters so much today. It can be argued that we live in a time of “arbitrarianism” where the main threat is to accountability as such.

Arbitrarianism views principles as merely optional, as at best strategies, contingent on whatever one wants. A good way to understand arbitrarianism is through its view of freedom. Civic republicanism, historically, has sought equality under the law, seeing fair and impartial principles as protectors of the people against tyrants. Freedom is freedom from tyranny provided by the accountability of everyone to fair principles. But arbitrarianism is the opposite of civic republicanism. It sees principles as intrusions on one’s freedom.

The idea that freedom is freedom from interference is an early modern idea usually traced back to Thomas Hobbes. Arbitrarianism takes this idea of freedom and applies it to anything inside the head or heart. Having to be accountable to a principle gets in the way of doing what you want. Having to own up to what you want even gets in the way of doing whatever you want!

Arbitrarianism is a deep American truth to many. The lure of gun ownership is in part a reflection of it and the society it creates. When people consider themselves free only when they get to do whatever they want, society is potentially a war of all against all, because accountability cannot be trusted. Force, not authority, then seems the way to protect one’s own.

The Wild West is arbitrarian, just as some models of American masculinity are. Arbitrarians are authoritarian, but not as kings. They are men who don’t have to obey any laws but can take what they want. They are people driven by desire across a colonized land that has been ethnically cleansed and is then called Manifest Destiny. In that barren space, you can do what you want. Ask Cormac McCarthy.

Arbitrarianism is the resurfaced vice of the United States of America that helped elect Donald Trump, but it is found in other areas of our culture. Next to the arbitrarianism of Donald Trump is also, for example, the flirtation of anarchist culture with arbitrarianism (as Reiner Schürmann explored at great length, anarchy actually means, “without principle”). When moral norms in protest  and lawfulness in society are suspect in and of themselves, an arbitrarian turn is in effect.

The political philosopher Wendy Brown provides a context for all of this. According to her research, the rationalizations of neoliberalism seek to dismantle accountability to the common good, the public interest, and any form of value or principle that interferes with strategic investment. In neoliberalism, the pronoun “we” takes a hit. “I” “I” “I” emerges — not even “you.” Thus is the social world unaccountable.

Here is where silence may come in. In the context of a neoliberal society, any act that re-establishes accountability becomes potentially revolutionary. But this revolution is subtle. Next to arbitrarianism especially, accountability become revolutionary – it becomes a statement of confidence in shared, moral norms and in the power of mature people to have a sense of self. Thus we are not talking about a reactive revolution that treats people as enemies and espouses violence, for this would be to avoid accountability to others, to the fact that we are all people who can consider things in our own way and who therefore deserve accountability as much as we do. Rather, we’re talking about a silent revolution.

Moving the social world from within

We might not see it happening at first. It might seem simply that there is some honesty in a part of the world about which one had become cynical. But living up to the norms that make sense to us would constitute a silent revolution, insufficient for all that we need, but important nonetheless. How much cynicism comes not from institutional norms as they are supposed to be but from the way that they are evaded from within?

Take a frequent object of cynicism: hierarchies. Hierarchies have become arbitrarian increasingly over the last half century, a phenomenon begun in U.S. corporations but which has spread to many areas of life along with neoliberal rationality, higher education included. Now we see it in the current administration of the United States of America, where there appears to be a persistent strategy to evade accountability even to the offices of the state.

As accountable people in hierarchies squared up with what truly makes sense for the institution in which they have a role, they would have to clarify the norms that make their hierarchies acceptable in society – e.g., work regulations, fair procedures, human rights, and more. They would have to see if the institutions live up to their missions, constitutions and basic laws. They would become sensitive to when people in hierarchies pass the buck, push responsibility down to subordinates to escape blame, or simply abuse their power. They would consider whether the people responsible for safeguarding aspects of the institution would perform in a trustworthy manner befitting their role. And if it were found that an office’s or an institution’s behavior contradicts its mission, moral norms, or official duties, then accountable people would reform the institution.

Accountability isn’t a cure-all, but it helps. It brings what is justifiable into focus — and clarifies institutional gaps out in the open. It may not radically re-create norms — but it clarifies the ones that make sense, and allows those that do not to become apparent. It restores some confidence in the social world that arbitrarianism undermines.

What Picard meant by claiming that the world of silence is complete isn’t that it is all satisfying, but that it is settled out in the open. As Aristotle argued, completeness for practical, social, and finite beings such as ourselves means living thoughtfully with integrity in all our relations. The power of silence is that it brings us to that integrity in our relations and, through a kind of honest vulnerability, moves the social world from within.

Training for silent revolution

Emma González’s silence made her audience feel vulnerable and confident — a wondrous act. But if we are not standing before millions holding silence, how might we think of practicing it? An apt training for silent revolution is “open-state” meditation. As I understood the person who taught me the most about it outside of my practice, open-state meditation does, in a certain sense, nothing. It is anti-metaphysical and anti-doxic. It is not about forming beliefs or internalizing dogma. It is simply about letting the space in our minds open up around the contingencies of our being and the norms we might hold to deal with the throes and throws of life. In a figure from a great meditation novel – and comedy – of the 21st century, meditation allows the city to be deconstructed and reconstructed while one is at peace. Ironically for a practice that emphasizes “non-self,” meditation actually allows one to have a differentiated sense of self: of what one believes and of that to which one must be, should be, or wants to be accountable. In so doing, open-state meditation aids us to think, act, and feel clearly and accountably everywhere we go. It touches on everything we do, think, and feel.

Another education is touch. Touch that is true is wanted in the sense that it is not an intrusion (that would be knocking, handling, grabbing, etc. — not touch). As Jean-Luc Marion understood so well, our bodies become alive only when we want to touch — otherwise, they are objects in some extended sense. But in touching, we touch, are touched, and are aware of the contact (from the Latin, “con” — with –“tangere” — to touch). Touch is relationship.

The thing about touch is that it is silent, even if it is accompanied by sound. What touch means is felt inside each of us, silently. Moreover, in that silence is relationship, and that relationship, undeniably real in the silence, makes us alive and real. This would appear to be another reason why people who, from histories of violence, are unable to touch and be touched might struggle so much to feel present. To have one’s touch taken away by trauma is to have one’s reality troubled silently.

But when one can touch and be touched, when the reality of relationship can be felt inside oneself silently, then one finds a sense of order and a sense of distance. Once again, the sense of the world is laid out around one and one has space to move in it, space to disown the things that make no good sense, and space to be sincere and real. One has space to devote oneself. Touch helps with accountability.

The point is, the silent revolution happens silently. It is like meditation, and it is like touch — both internal and interpersonal — and we can learn our way into it from both. Through the silent revolution’s accountability, the sense of the world spreads out, and the non-sense worth opposing does too. Find something that allows you to settle in, find a way to be truly in relationship, and don’t let go inside yourself of the things that truly make sense and ought to be. Silently, I am arguing for our agency in this rotten time. (1)

Jeremy Bendik-Keymer works as the Beamer-Schneider Professor in Ethics at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S.A. His next book is The Wind ~ An Unruly Living (Punctum, 2018)


1) Thanks go to Daniel Robison, Misty Morrison, Sarah Gridley, Alex Shakar, Jeremy Levie and Tarek Darwish; for editorial commentary, to Ali Shames-Dawson; and for the initial call for a piece on silence,  to Kalpana Jain.